Thursday 25 November 2021

Books Read in 2021, Ranked

I am unlikely to finish any more books this year, as the one I am currently reading is very long and involved. So I thought I would rank the ones that I have finished this year from best to worst (there is a lot of Jack Vance in the list - sorry):

Fathers and Sons (Ivan Turgenev): This is probably among the most important novels ever written - a work of the most profound empathy and insight, and a wonderful antidote to the fragmentation, bad faith and factionalism of modern culture. If you've never read it, do so at once.

Ecce and Old Earth (Jack Vance): There are problems with the structure of this novel, but I don't remember having enjoyed reading a book as much as I did this one in many years. The central section was the literary equivalent of a dinner at The French Laundry. Just sublime. 

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Robert Caro): As a longstanding fan of Robert Caro's work I was always reticent to read this, knowing that it would likely come to obsess me. It did. Don't read it unless you want a 1700 page book about town planning in New York between 1930-1970 to take over your life for two months, causing you to forget mealtimes and appointments and become an annoying disappointment to your spouse. 

The Plague (Albert Camus): As I wrote in my Goodreads review: "This novel was apparently understood on its publication as being an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France (and my edition has an afterword by Tony Judt which goes to some lengths to justify this reading of the text). But if indeed Camus himself intended it to be read this way, the fact that it resonates so strongly with readers during the 'Covid era' is testament to a great novelist's insights into the human condition, which can give his work new meanings and interpretations, and fresh value, almost a century later. It is a moving monument to the power of literature that Camus said more of what needed to be said about Covid in the 1940s than all of the combined scientific, sociological and political treatises of 2020-2021 put together."

Emphyrio (Jack Vance): I wrote a longish quasi-review of this book here, and have nothing really to add to it, except to reiterate that it really is science fiction of the highest rank - the equal of The Book of the New Sun, if much more compact. 

Wyst: Alastor 1716 (Jack Vance): This is an interesting companion piece to Emphyrio, as it has a similar subject - what might be called the human condition under collectivism. Like Emphyrio, it has an emotional depth that is often absent from Vance's work; you really care about poor Jantiff and his dogged resistance to misfortune. It's just a shame that the final act feels a little rushed. 

The Hobbit (JRR Tolkien): What can be said abut The Hobbit that has not been said? This is probably the 10th time I've read it. I can confirm that it is still in working order.

The Coming of the Third Reich (Richard Evans): This is popular, narrative history at its finest - rigorous, but easy to read and lacking academic fustiness. The story retains its capacity to shock: political violence destroys democracy, and the lack of a shared national narrative can be fatal to a state's survival. 

The Third Reich in Power (Richard Evans): See above. If the story of how the Nazis came to power is brutal and horribly plausible, the tale of what they did with it prior to the war itself is terrifying. What happened to the German Jews - the slow ratchet of isolation, disempowerment, and dispossession - simply cannot lose its power, no matter how much the word 'Nazi' has become denuded of its meaning through overuse. It's hair-raising, and Evans does it justice with a masterfully calm and unexaggerated retelling. 

The State (Anthony de Jasay): De Jasay's account of the state's inevitable growth is genuinely sui generis and, in its own way, heretical. It is the political philosophy equivalent of outsider art. Anybody genuinely interested in libertarian thought should read it. 

On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth (Bertrand de Jouvenel): A great companion piece to de Jasay's The State, this is a very different book - literary, dramatic, sweeping - but similarly iconoclastic. I was struck when reading them by the quality that 'lived experience' gives to works of political philosophy; these men cut from very different cloth from that of the modern academic, who has seen nothing but lecture theatres and classrooms and his own pleasant office. In Communist Hungary and Vichy France, respectively, they had experienced first hand the phenomena which they were addressing, and it gives their work an urgency that is impossible to fake. 

Araminta Station (Jack Vance): An unusual book, that slightly awkwardly slips from comedy of manners to police procedural to interstellar travelogue, producing the sense that it was rather being made up as Vance went along. Luckily, the writing, characters and worldbuilding are so good that you can readily forgive it its sins.

Marune: Alastor 933 (Jack Vance): Another unusual book, which few authors would have the sheer gall to write. It is as though Vance deliberately challenged himself to create as implausible and dislikable a culture as he could think of, and turn it into the compelling subject for a novel regardless. He is equal to the task.

Trullion: Alastor 2262 (Jack Vance): As with all of Vance's best work, there is something profound going on beneath the surface of this tale, which at first glance presents itself as an enjoyable romp, but hints that there are very bleak, dark things in the human heart. 

The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties (Christopher Caldwell): This is genuine balls-to-the-wall iconoclasm - what being countercultural really looks like in 2021. Nobody comes away unscathed, whether Hugh Hefner, Ronald Reagan, LBJ or Martin Luther King, and it is written with such bile, directed at so many targets, that at times it seems even the author himself can't quite keep track of who he is supposed to be skewering at any given moment. A book to blow away cobwebs. 

Short Breaks in Mordor: Dawns and Departures of a Scribbler's Life (Peter Hitchens): Peter Hitchens is a better writer than his more famous brother, and has many more interesting things to say, but I was slightly annoyed that this collection of his superlative travel writing is really only half a book - most of the essays were printed in both the Mail on Sunday and American Conservative, and for some reason it was thought best to provide the two almost identical versions for each. 

Slouching Toward Bethlehem (Joan Didion): This is a very mixed bag. I am a big fan of Didion's prose; there are few writers indeed who have devoted so much care and effort to the construction of sentences on a page. Yet many of the essays in the collection are now mere historical curios: does anybody care now what Joan Baez had to say about the war in Vietnam, or what the hippies of Haight-Ashbury thought they were doing as the 1960s collapsed around their ears? Oddly, the best of the bunch is the short piece on John Wayne, which ought to be less relevant still, but is as touching and entertaining as non-fiction writing can be.

The Second World Wars (Victor Davis Hanson): I have read a lot of books about the Second World War, and this stands out for achieving something I don't think I have previously encountered: explaining carefully, in detail, why it was the unglamorous stuff (logistics, geography, industrial capacity, cost-benefit analysis), rather than generalship or fighting ability, that won the war.

Batavia's Graveyard (Mike Dash): I'm not sure that this book tells us anything about the human condition, or anything, but it sure is a lurid and exciting tale. What happens when a gnostic psychopath finds himself in charge of the survivors of a shipwreck hundreds of miles from authority of any kind? Well, very bad things indeed. 

Tales of the Uncanny and Supernatural (Algernon Blackwood): "The Man Whom the Trees Loves" is the standout in terms of literary quality, but the GPA of the many short stories contained in this collection is pretty high. Blackwood reveals himself to be more than just a pulp writer, but a lyrical and expressive prose stylist with far more interesting ideas than, for example, HP Lovecraft.

Throy (Jack Vance): A sadly rather forgettable end to the Cadwal series, but an entertaining romp all the same. 

The Turn of the Screw (Henry James): Sadly, the modern reader who comes to this novella brings so much horror baggage to it that the tale really lacks the capacity to scare them. What the story hints at is really very disturbing, but ultimately the feeling is one of disappointment.

Life at the Bottom (Theodore Dalrymple): Dalrymple is a brilliant writer, and this collection of anecdotes and musings on his many years spent as a psychotherapist in prisons and hospitals has the weight of vast experience and insight behind it. But God, it's a depressing read, made all the more so for the fact that nobody who ought to read and pay attention to it will.

A War Like No Other (Victor Davis Hanson): This is a faintly dissatisfying book, which can't seem to make up its mind who its audience is: lay people, or scholars? Perhaps the problem is that I wanted a narrative account of the war, and should have just gone ad fontes to Thucydides himself. 

Taking Rights Seriously (Ronald Dworkin): A re-read, it probably being 12 years since I read it last. Dworkin remains arrogant, frustrating, and wrong, but endearingly so; there is something truly quixotic about his quest to get to the bottom of things through sheer force of reason - a true example of 20th century liberalism's finest qualities. 

The Conservative Mind (Russel Kirk): This, ultimately, reads like what it is: the ravings of a very gifted but naive young scholar, fresh from writing a PhD, telling you about his academic crushes. Great bibliography and footnotes, though.

The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (Christopher Lasch): Lasch is, I understand, undergoing something of a renaissance or reassessment, and I am sympathetic to his basic argument. But I just can't say I read this book on the edge of my seat. 

Natural Right and History (Leo Strauss): I am not ashamed to say this went over my head for the most part. I mean, I've read Derrida, Voegelin, Jellinek, Hobbes, Austin. I can do impenetrable. But the meaning of this really did elude me. 

Sing Backwards and Weep: A Memoir (Mark Lanegan): I love Mark Lanegan's music and the era in which he was making it, but his junkie reminiscences are pretty self-pitying and self-indulgent, like junkies so often are. 

Law and the Modern Mind (Jerome Frank): We live in Jerome Frank's world, in many ways, but the psychobabble which accompanies his observations about adjudication are trite and simplistic, and this book is really now of historical interest only, for all that it was apparently once influential. 

A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts and the Law (Antonin Scalia and others): This is really just a longish law journal article penned by Scalia, with a few rather banal responses from bigwigs in the American legal academy. It's only when Dworkin enters the fray that we feel as though we are getting somewhere, but that's really just the last 10 pages of the book.

The Genius of Birds (Jennifer Ackerman): I was so up for reading a book about bird intelligence - I can't think of a person who would be a more receptive audience for it than me - but perhaps because of my expectations being too high, I found this to be rather boring. Too many popular science books neglect the importance of good writing, and this is a prime example.

The Unauthorised Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (Robin Lane Fox): What is there to say, other than that there is an interesting book to be written on the subject of "Truth and Fiction in the Bible", but this isn't it?

Pile: Petals from St Klaed's Computer (Brian Aldiss): The art in this book is wonderful, but the poetry accompanying it is appalling doggerel  - like something written by Adrian Mole. I mean, "By hidden ways and secret circumbendibus/they reach the Oracle, all tremulous." Come on Brian, you wrote Helliconia, for fuck's sake, man!

The Last Days of New Paris (China Mieville): This is bad stuff from Mieville. Absolute minimal effort, titanically uninteresting characters even by his own low standards, and slapdash, monotonous writing. A phoned-in effort that reads like it was written to fulfil a contractual obligation - or just as a vehicle for Mieville to show off how much he knows about 1920s French art. 

On Grand Strategy (John Lewis Gaddis): I had to put this down after a few chapters. It is, frankly, the work of a complete and utter pseud. 

Ness (Robert Macfarlane): This is supposed to be a kind of "prose-poem" set in Orford Ness and featuring weird nature spirits. If that sounds appealing in theory, let me reassure you that in practice it is just shit - pretentious drivel from start to finish. Avoid. 


  1. "Blackwood reveals himself to be more than just a pulp writer, but a lyrical and expressive prose stylist with far more interesting ideas than, for example, HP Lovecraft."

    I used to love Lovecraft, but then I decided to read Lovecraft's four favorite authors: Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, M. R. James, and Arthur Machen. "Oh, so this is the sort of thing Lovecraft was trying to write, but mostly failed."

    Lovecraft himself thought the same way. He disliked all of his own stories except two: "The Music of Erich Zann" (which he deemed merely "not bad") and "The Colour out of Space" (which he deemed mediocre).

    1. Yeah, I concur. All of the writers you mentioned wrote some flawed stuff, but their higher quality output really is of great literary merit. I don’t think any of Lovecraft’s writing can really be put in that category.

    2. I disagree, of course— I think Lovecraft was a good writer and pretty original. But apart from that, I think the major thing that separates Lovecraft from Blackwood (and to a lesser extent from Machen and James) is that his horrors are so PHYSICAL. Blackwood mostly envisioned some fairly abstract spiritual entities and phenomena, and Machen and James did have some slimy creepiness but only occasionally in the climaxes. Lovecraft on the contrast almost always envisions some kind of literal physical monster, some tentacled thing (yeah I know Machen did too, but not as much!!), some GORE— the kind of thing that apparently made James dismiss what he read of Lovecraft as being in poor taste! ;) But that “everything is essentially materialist” worldview is, IMHO, one of Lovecraft’s notable features compared to these other folks.

      Dunsany… ahhhh, Dunsany is his own thing!! And I do agree Lovecraft never equaled Dunsany, though he made his own unique hybrid of Dunsanian pastiches.

    3. Don't get me wrong - I do like a lot of Lovecraft stories. But I don't think that even at his best he ever really manages to write the kind of marvellous prose you get in e.g. Blackwood's "The Man Who the Trees Loves" or Machen's "The White People".

      The contrast between Lovecraft and MR James is interesting. James really had a stereotypical posh Victorian/Edwardian English academic's abhorrence of physical contact and it really comes through in his stories. A lot of them revolve around an absolute terror of just being touched. HP Lovecraft didn't seem to have this. With him the fear is of being driven insane.

  2. I was brainstorming an updated version of my "Contemporary Fantasy Literature" course, and I realized that I would almost certainly have to leave Miéville off the reading list--he's done nothing of note since Embassytown in 2011 and Railsea in 2012 and almost nothing fictional since the short stories and novellas came out in 2015/2016. He's just totally vanished from the scene and the conversation.

    1. Even Embassytown was a disappointment, I thought, but at least it was a proper attempt at writing a novel. New Paris is the work of somebody who isn’t even trying.

    2. I recall Miéville did a history of the Russian Revolution to coincide with the centenary, which indicates something of a change of course.
      The BBC did their adaptation of The City and the City a few years ago - indicative, in its way, of Miéville's work becoming quite thoroughly well known by institutions. Perhaps he hopes to defy this fate!

    3. I think he might just have run out of ideas?

    4. I'm the wrong fellow to ask; haven't read anything beyond the Bas-Lag stuff.

    5. Yeah, it looks like he's moving back to political writing: his next book (due out in May 2022) is a reading of The Communist Manifesto. Which is fine: it's just interesting to me to see how someone so influential from 2000-2011 just completely vanishes from the conversation.

    6. I listened to the audiobook of the Russian Revolution thing. It was pretty detailed, but I couldn't help but feel I'd rather it had been written by an historian.

  3. Glad to see you read the Alastor books - I think they are some of Vance's best works - strange cultures and I really like how things are left a little unresolved at the end of each of them. In some ways I'd like to see a version of Hussade made into a game (maybe on the Blood Bowl model) but I like that the action is left up to your imagination. Interesting that you read Turn of the Screw if I remember correctly either Throy or Ecce and Old Earth has a long sequence that seems pretty inspired by that work.

    1. Yeah, it’s in Ecce and Old Earth. That hadn’t occurred to me before but you’re right, there is an echo there.

  4. Oh damn, I really liked "the landscape of history" by Gaddis. I never read "on grand strategy", what makes it bad in your opinion?

    1. It just reads like very hastily rehashed notes from the seminar series on which the book is based. Very sloppy and half-baked.

  5. A stalwart list, I will be using at least some of these on my next trips to the online store.

    Melvielle's Perdido Street Station had segments that might be brilliant but the sheer length of the work makes one beg for an editor. Refreshing to see a review of Blackwood. I contemplated diving into him as part of an overal Weird Fiction dive but an unsuccesfull foray into Arthur Machen (with The White People exempted) turned me in other directions.

    1. I didn't like Perdido Street Station. The Scar and Iron Council are a lot better.

      Blackwood is a mixed bag. There's a lot of pretty bog-standard pulp involved, but there are plenty of diamonds in the rough, like with Machen.

    2. Perdido Street Station read to me like an inferior M John Harrison pastiche.

    3. I just find it very hard to get into Mieville's fiction because the characters always seem like mouthpieces or cyphers rather than real people. What I liked about The Scar and Iron Council was the sheer scale and ambition of his imagination. Iron Council also just has some really good writing.

  6. Can I just make a plug for The Terra Ignota four book series by Ada Palmer. Just finished all four back to back. If a future earth well thought out with great plotting that relies heavily on philosophy of the Enlightenment while tackling both theodicy and the Fermi paradox doesn’t intrigue you then it might not be for you :)

  7. All the four Richard Evans' books about the Third Reich are great. Read the other two ASAP.

  8. I think I'm finally going to have to give Vance a chance. I don't know why but for a long time I've kind of lumped him in with Moorcock and Wolfe as one of those heady but unreadable scifi/fantasy authors.

    I recently watched one of the old made for TV versions of Turn of the Screw and agree that years of horror baggage, make it difficult to sit through.

    Speaking of ghost stories, do you have any thoughts on the stories of M. R. James? I only ask because I never hear his works discussed in ORS circles. The word "ghosts" doesn't do the supernatural entities in his stories justice: they are more like demons or elementals or something.

    Russell Kirk has an anthology of ghost stories 'Ancestral Shadows' that I've been meaning to get around to reading.

    1. I love MR James and have read alll his stories - I did write a post about him a long time ago ( I agree that he deserves more attention.

      I know Russell Kirk wrote fiction and I've heard that it's good. But it's hard to track down even on the secondary market.

      Anyway, yeah, read Vance. I'd say Lyonesse is the best starting point, followed by the Demon Princes books or the Planet of Adventure ones. The Cugel stories are great too.

  9. Really appreciate this post, and will soon be jumping all over the Turganev. Goodreads tells me that I have read 88 books so far this year, I only wish I were able to give them the sort of insightful critical analysis that you do, rather than resorting to hyperbole, as I mostly do.